‘Major incident’ at London hospitals as new pandemic peak looms

Whipps Cross University Hospital
Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone

Report by Joe Talora, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell

A ‘major incident’ has been declared in London as hospitals face being overwhelmed by the continued spread of Covid-19.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who formally chairs the London Resilience Forum, made the decision to declare a major incident following discussions with NHS London, local authorities and Public Health England.

A major incident can be declared when a situation is deemed “beyond the scope of business as usual” and can be due to “serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life”.

Sadiq Khan said: “The situation in London is now critical with the spread of the virus out of control.

“The number of cases in London has increased rapidly with more than a third more patients being treated in our hospitals now compared to the peak of the pandemic last April.”

Barts Health NHS Trust, which runs Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone as well as other East London hospitals, released a statement this week saying that the situation was being managed as part of its “winter escalation plan” for coping with Covid-19. It means transferring the most seriously-ill coronavirus patients at Whipps Cross to other, larger hospitals.

The statement read: “We are treating very high numbers of patients with Covid-19 across our hospitals, and in line with our winter escalation plan we have moved into a ‘very high pressure’ phase and taking steps to keep our patients safe.

“The bespoke critical care unit at The Royal London Hospital reopened to Covid-19 patients in October and is crucial to the plans we developed with our partners in north-east London. We opened up a further ward at The Royal London on 27th December specifically to care for patients with Covid-19.

“The increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients – many requiring critical care or oxygen therapy – reflect rising infection rates in our boroughs. By working as a group of hospitals we are able to share this burden equitably. So far we managed the impact of local demand on Whipps Cross and Newham Hospital by securing regular ambulance diverts to The Royal London.

“From now on we have agreed with the London Ambulance Service that The Royal London will be our main receiving centre for all of the most serious Covid-19 cases, as well as trauma and emergency patients.

“This move will create valuable breathing space at both Whipps Cross and Newham, and enable those hospitals to focus on treating less complex or high-risk cases on behalf of the group.

“Less sick Covid-19 patients, including those on oxygen, will still be treated at Whipps Cross and Newham, and the emergency departments there will continue to accept walk-in patients.”

One in 30 Londoners is now believed to be infected with Covid-19 and there have been 477 Covid-related deaths in London hospitals in the last three days alone. The case rate in Waltham Forest has been one of the highest in the UK for the last month and the borough is currently the tenth worst-affected area of the country, with a rate of 1,164 cases per 100,000 people over the last week.

Londoners are once again being urged to stay at home and not to call an ambulance unless it is an emergency, with London Ambulance Service taking up to 8,000 emergency calls a day.

Sadiq Khan added: “It’s vital that people stay at home except where it’s necessary to leave, wash your hands regularly and follow other essential safety measures to help health and care services and our communities in London stay as safe as possible.”

“Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job, but with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically.

“We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die.”

Major incidents have previously been declared in the capital for the Grenfell Tower fire, the Croydon tram crash, and terror attacks at Westminster Bridge